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Feds Are Deporting Legal Immigrants for Non-Violent Drug Crimes

Drug offenses were the most serious conviction in roughly 266,000 deportations between 2007 and 2012 — at least 38 percent of which were for possession.
Photo of Marion Scholz (left) in Frankfurt with Eileen McDonald (right), a volunteer who helps recently deported migrants adjust to life in Germany. (Photo Courtesy of Eileen McDonald)

In November last year, Marion Scholz was deported from the United States to Germany, a country she left with her family in 1967.

German authorities took her into custody as soon as she arrived in Frankfurt, she said. While she didn't know the language — she grew up in New Jersey and California — she was able to explain her situation to them in English.

"They asked me why I was here," she said, speaking from a Frankfurt shelter this week. "I said I was deported. They asked me, 'Why?' I told them for drugs and they were like, 'Really?' I said yeah, really. They couldn't believe it either."


The 51-year-old Scholz admits she once had a drug problem. She was a habitual methamphetamine user for years and was convicted of misdemeanor possession charges in 1993 and 2005, as well as vandalism and several probation violations.

But she thinks the punishment for her drug convictions — deportation and separation from her family — was too harsh. She had been a legal permanent resident in the US and her father, siblings, and son all live in the states.

"I know it's my fault for being here, but come on," she said. "It's not like I murdered somebody or hurt anybody. If anyone, I hurt myself."

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The case illustrates one aspect of the federal government's immigration enforcement strategy.

Under President Obama, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has focused more on removing immigrants who are convicted criminals rather than casting a broad net for anyone in the country without legal status. The president says the system targets "felons, not families."

But many of those so-called "felons" weren't convicted of violent crimes. A 93-page report released by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday details how drug crimes represent a sizable number of people deported from the US in recent years.

According to data obtained by HRW, drug offenses were the most serious conviction in roughly 266,000 deportations between 2007 and 2012. At least 38 percent of those drug convictions were for possession.


"I wasn't surprised that these deportation were happening," said Grace Meng, the senior researcher for the US program at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. "I was surprised to hear from several people that they have been arrested in early morning work or home raids, that immigration agents had actually come looking for them, often for very old convictions."

Whether these types of deportations are continuing at the same rate today is unclear.

The Department of Homeland Security issued guidance in November for how immigration agents should practice "prosecutorial discretion" — the decision to focus enforcement resources on certain categories of people, such as convicted criminals and people who recently had entered the country illegally.

Drug possession convictions aren't specifically cited as priorities, which implies those cases could be eligible for relief. But multiple convictions could trigger a deportation for a legal permanent resident, as could a conviction for selling drugs, regardless of the amount or value.

Jennifer Elzea, a spokesperson for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the DHS agency in charge of enforcement — said in a statement that agents use discretion on a case-by-case basis.

"In determining whether to exercise prosecutorial discretion, consideration is given to the alien's criminal, immigration history, and humanitarian factors," she said. "These considerations are not exhaustive and no one factor is determinative."


Another ICE spokesperson, Virginia Kice, addressed Scholz's case directly, saying in an email that "based on the totality of her case history… she would still be an enforcement priority under today's guidelines."

When it comes to domestic drug crimes, the Obama administration has shown signs that it's willing to de-escalate, if not abandon, the federal government's longstanding war on drugs.

Related: New Research Suggests Pot Is the Least Deadly Recreational Drug

The Department of Justice has allowed four states and the District of Columbia to move forward with the legalization of marijuana, even though the state laws conflict with a federal ban on cannabis.

Policies around hard drugs have been re-evaluated, too. President Obama signed a law in 2010 to lessen penalties for people caught with crack cocaine.

But federal immigration enforcement hasn't caught up to the trend.

Legal permanent residents convicted of any drug offense — with the exception of possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana — can be deported. First-time offenders can apply for a sort of pardon, called a "cancellation of removal," but such petitions aren't always successful or available depending on the crime.

Screengrab of Change petition: A year-old petition called for immigration officials to halt Scholz's deportation.

Undocumented immigrants face harsher consequences. Even small-scale drug charges can lead to deportation and being permanently barred from reentering the US.

Marion Scholz, for her part, is preparing to spend the foreseeable future in Germany. Her pro-bono attorney believes she'll likely face the standard penalty for a drug deportation, which is effectively a lifetime ban from returning to the states.


Although Scholz currently lives in a shelter for women, she's in the process of trying to obtain her own apartment.

She works as a gardener, earning a small salary through a government program, and is beginning to learn the language.

"It's going to take me a year or two," she said. "It's not easy."

Despite all the challenges, in some ways, Germany represents a fresh start.

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After her second conviction for methamphetamine possession in 2007, she says she spent two and a half years behind bars; the first eight months in a county jail and another 21 months locked away in an immigration detention center.

According to Scholz, she completed a rehab program after she was released from immigration detention in 2010 and has been sober since then. While the deportation was "devastating," she says she's still clean.

"This experience has made me stronger," she said. "I gotta stay strong."

Follow Ted Hesson onTwitter:  @tedhesson